Indonesia’s suspension from international football is having repercussions beyond the pitch
Today FIFA is holding an Extraordinary Congress in Zurich. The event will indeed on an extraordinary note: this afternoon, 207 delegates vote to elect the association’s new president. They will also express their views on reforms intended to improve the organisation's governance, after multi-billion corruption scandals led to a raft of departures and investigations.
Not everybody will be allowed to cast a ballot, however. FIFA's executive committee on Wednesday recommended that Indonesia and Kuwait, currently suspended from the association, remain banned from voting today. In principle, any member country could still call for further debate on their case this morning. But odds that such a discussion could lead to the disgraced nations’ reinstatement are very long.
The decision is a blow to the leading contender to the presidency: Sheik Salman, a royal from Bahrain who heads the Asian Football Confederation, was counting on a block vote from his constituency. Fewer ballots in his favour could deprive him from the two-third majority needed to win in the first round. Only a single majority is needed in the second round, by which time alliances could favour one of his rivals (acting head of European football Gianni Infantino, for instance).
But the ban's consequences are already being felt elsewhere - far away from Switzerland. At a time when soccer fans are growing stronger across Southeast Asia, Indonesian football is fast losing its legs: the country was forbidden from taking part in qualifying rounds for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup; it has no regional or international events to look forward to. All domestic competitions have meanwhile grounded to a halt. A number of clubs have started independent tournaments to try and fill the void, but these have yet to meet their public.
As a result, clubs are not playing as much as they should – and sponsors, fearing the domestic game may be heading nowhere, are reluctant to stay involved. As clubs stop paying players, coaches and administrative staff, knowledge is fading or leaving the market. If these resources start being employed elsewhere, they may be lost to Indonesian football forever. Many top-flight clubs have already been disbanded; coaching courses and youth programmes have also been cancelled.
With about 250 million people, Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world. Nearly 80 percent of its population claims to be interested in football, according to sports consultancy Repucom. Yet only 17 percent play it at least once a week. Bridging that gap represents sizeable economic and business opportunity for the country. But it probably won't happen if the national team can't be seen playing and the best clubs disappear. Media revenues will also suffer: about 250 Indonesian Super League matches are normally shown on TV each season.
Indonesia was suspended by FIFA last May after being accused of interfering in the affairs of PSSI, its national football association (something FIFA forbids). The government had previously decided to dismiss PSSI after a dispute over the ownership of two clubs; it also demanded that the association, long accused of corruption and mismanagement, undergo significant reforms. FIFA’s sanctions, in effect, are forcing both parties to iron out their differences in an accelerated fashion (Indonesian president Joko Widodo yesterday said he was considering re-activating PSSI).
In the short-term, that is good news – for Indonesia’s clubs, players and fans. But in the absence of other checks and balances, FIFA’s intolerance over governments' oversight of national associations means these remain largely unaccountable. It is unclear how much appetite there will be at PSSI for reform once it becomes clear that FIFA can strong arm the government into making peace with it. Not that this should come as a complete surprise: for an organisation as opaque as FIFA, pushing for greater accountability in national football would probably be an unforgivable own goal.